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Looking for Info on an Old Family Business? Try School Yearbooks

Melissa Barker

Looking for Info on an Old Family Business? Try School Yearbooks

As genealogists, we search for any source that can enrich our knowledge about our ancestors’ lives. If you’re like me and enjoy seeking out every detail of the lives of your ancestors, you know you sometimes have to think outside the box. Sometimes we have to get creative with our research process to find new information. That is where the records at MyHeritage can be a huge help.

I have ancestors who owned local businesses. Trying to locate records about those businesses can be a challenge, especially when trying to find photographs of the business itself. My husband’s grandparents, Lannie and Ruth (Burcham) Barker, owned a local mercantile store from the 1930s to the 1970s. I have only one photograph of the store, and it shows Ruth standing behind the counter. I am still desperately seeking photographs of the outside of the store from when it was first established in the 1930s; I have been told they even had those old timey gas pumps! So far I’ve had no luck finding photographs of the storefront — but I haven’t given up.

Ruth Athalene (Burcham) Barker at Barker’s Store, ca. 1950’s

A few of the better-known sources that can help genealogists learn about the businesses their ancestors owned are business license records, tax records, city directories, and newspapers. However, I’d like to suggest another type of resource you may not have thought of: school yearbooks.

Yes, that’s right, I said yearbooks!

It costs money to produce a yearbook. To fund these projects, the organizers would often approach local businesses and offer advertising space in the finished product. Businesses would pay to place their ads in a publication that would have wide distribution among students, and the yearbook organizers would have the money to produce the book.

Houston County High School Yearbooks, Houston County, TN. Archives

Yearbooks have been around for a very long time. Sometimes called annuals, they were usually produced each year, and included photos and information about students, sports, academics, student life, clubs and major school events that took place during the preceding school year. The first yearbooks can be traced back to the East Coast schools of the late 17th century. The first college yearbook was published in 1806 by Yale University, and 18 years later, in 1823, the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy published the longest surviving yearbook: the Signia. Students would sign scrapbook-style books containing things like hair clippings, dried flowers, newspaper articles, and other mementos. The production of yearbooks became a popular tradition: I suspect many of you still have yours on your bookshelves. I know I have my yearbooks from Dickson County High School, and I actually look at them quite often.

If your business-owning ancestor helped out the local school and paid to advertise in the yearbook, you may find those advertisements in the book — usually placed in the back. These ads can reveal valuable information about businesses: locations, services and wares, clientele, and sometimes even photos of the place or the owners.

For example, my dad, Robert Lee LeMaster (1942–2019) attended Ellet High School in Akron, Summit County, Ohio in 1956. The 1956 Elletian yearbook is scanned and available on MyHeritage (though I have a printed copy myself). My dad was in the 8th grade that year, and his class photo appears in the book. He is located in the fifth row, first photo:

1956 Elletian Yearbook, Page 86

In the back of the 1956 Elletian yearbook is a whole section called Advertisements, and it includes 26 pages of local business ads. These ads contain all kinds of information about local businesses, such as their addresses, phone numbers, photos, and the products and services they offered.

1956 Elletian Yearbook, Page 175
1956 Elletian Yearbook, Page 180

If your ancestor owned a business in Akron, Ohio and paid to advertise in the school yearbook in 1956, this resource would give you some great information to add to your family history.

Even if your ancestor didn’t own a business, yearbook ads can provide valuable information about the businesses they may have visited and used. Perhaps a family member mentioned a restaurant or diner they enjoyed in an old family letter or diary. Maybe your mom told you about the dress shop she frequented as a teenager. You just might find them in the back of a local yearbook.

So the next time you are trying to locate information about your ancestor’s business or looking for a business that your ancestors mentioned, be sure to check out the MyHeritage U.S. Yearbooks Collection. It’s a true treasure trove for any genealogist — for more reasons than you may have imagined!

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